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Streetfilms: Making Muni Faster and More Reliable by Consolidating Stops

A common complaint among Muni riders is that the bus simply stops too often. It turns out they may be on to something: according to transit experts and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which operates Muni, consolidating some bus stops is one of the cheapest and quickest ways to speed up Muni.

That's the subject of this film, the second in a series on making Muni faster and more reliable. It was shot and edited by Streetfilms' John Hamilton.

Muni's stops are actually much closer than its own standards advise. Only 17 percent of Muni's bus stops fall within the recommended range of 800-1,000 feet (closer on steep hills); 70 percent are closer than that. As SFMTA staff has pointed out in the past, nationwide research shows most people are willing to walk a quarter-mile to the nearest bus stop.

The SFMTA's first attempt to consolidate stops -- a pilot project on the 38-Geary in the Tenderloin -- turned out poorly for the agency. Residents got the Board of Supervisors to block the proposal, pointing out that it appeared to speed up service for wealthier commuters from the Richmond by forcing Tenderloin residents to walk farther. Now, the SFMTA hopes it can dispel that impression by proposing a comprehensive consolidation plan, at least on the city's busiest routes.

In the film, we hear from the person responsible for developing that plan, Julie Kirschbaum, project manager for the SFMTA's Transit Effectiveness Project, Livable City's Tom Radulovich, San Francisco Transit Riders Union organizer Dave Snyder, and Senior Action Network's Pi Ra.


Stop Spacing Plan on the Back Burner; Will Muni Let a Crisis go to Waste?

3236115280_ba9536352c.jpgBringing Muni's stop spacing in line with its stated policies could mean shorter travel times - and less service reduction. Flickr photo: frankfarm
Consolidating Muni stops that are too close to meet the MTA's own spacing standards could speed up travel times for riders and save the cash-strapped agency millions of dollars annually. But in a twisted development that typifies the MTA's current budget crisis, the agency says its staff is too busy cutting service to finish a proposal that could lessen those service cuts.

Back in June, Streetsblog reported that Muni could begin consolidating bus stops by February 2010 if all went according to schedule. Needless to say, all has not gone according to schedule. MTA Staff, led by service planning and Transit Effective Project manager Julie Kirschbaum, was scheduled to deliver detailed spacing plans to the agency's Board of Directors in October, with public hearings to follow in November and December.

Instead, Kirschbaum was busy finalizing a proposal for sweeping service changes during that time, which she delivered in early November. Arguably, it was a worthy use of the agency's time and resources, even aside from the pressure to balance its budget. Portions of the TEP were implemented without a major fight, and overall service hours remained virtually even while a small savings was squeezed out of efficiencies in operator schedules.

Before Kirschbaum could catch her breath on the "good cuts," however, the MTA was scrambling to fix another budget gap, this time requiring a round of "bad cuts" that would chop Muni service by a full ten percent.

Those plans were out the door and in public view by last month, followed by a public outcry so spirited that it just may give rise to a proper Muni riders union. The MTA Board will vote on the proposal later this month. Though initially pegged as a $28 million cut in service, recent union negotiations could lessen the blow. Either way, Kirschbaum is tied up with a task far from the lofty goals she was was hired to implement with the TEP, and the MTA is preparing to cut service in a way that has no discernible upside to riders.



For Bus Stop Consolidation, a Good Policy Will Be Good Politics

2837940932_603516f64f.jpgFlickr photo: ehoyer

With support for bus stop consolidation building, local leaders are starting to weigh in on political strategies for implementing a new stop spacing policy.

For Pi Ra of the Senior Action Network, the best political strategy is to start with a good policy, before recommendations to eliminate specific stops are out. The MTA has been working on a revised stop spacing policy, but Ra said the draft revised policy isn't adequate.

"So far, it's based solely about if it's flat or not flat, what degree of slope it is, and if it's a transfer or not," said Ra. "But they haven't really put in consideration the demographics of who uses that particular bus stop, and if it's a destination or not. So they all their research and then come up with a criteria to judge whether or not that bus stop should be there."

Ra said he "does think we have too many bus stops, especially in areas where it's really flat," but he thinks the MTA needs to start with a solid policy before it makes specific proposals. "Do you want to go through this again every time you're going to eliminate a bus stop? It'd be best to come up with a criteria that everybody accepts, or closely accepts, so when you decide to eliminate a bus stop, you say, 'here's the criteria, it fits that criteria,' and since this is what we accepted, then you won't have such a big fight over it each time. And they seem like they still haven't learned that particular lesson."

In a presentation on stop spacing in June, the MTA recommended that the revised stop spacing policy should give consideration to "destinations such as schools, hospitals, and other community facilities," though it didn't mention senior centers or similar demographic considerations specifically. The MTA has resisted doing broad demographic surveys, but Ra said taking important institutions into consideration "will be fine," instead of trying to survey demographics at every stop.


Bus Stop Consolidation: The Times Have Changed

2574554709_0e34ebe62a.jpgFlickr photo: erik kuo
Does the 14-Mission really need to stop at every block on Mission Street? Does the 21-Hayes? Consolidating bus stops could speed transit vehicles and reduce dwell time, saving service hours that could be used to increase frequencies and add hours of operation. Yet the MTA has avoided the topic for years, not even mentioning stop consolidation as a cost savings measure to mitigate the service cuts and fare increases just approved to bridge part of the agency's $129 million deficit.

The reason for this reluctance, according to several people within the agency who I spoke with, is that the planners were afraid that the controversy around stop consolidation would jeopardize other equally or more important reforms they were promoting. MTA planners are still stung by the defeat of their modest proposal to consolidate stops on the 38-Geary in the Tenderloin. Tenderloin residents got the Board of Supervisors to reject that proposal by pointing out that only the Tenderloin was targeted, giving the appearance that stop consolidation was more about helping the more well-to-do residents of the Richmond zoom through the Tenderloin more quickly than it was a transit efficiency measure that could benefit everyone.

Times have changed, apparently, with stop consolidation finally making it to the top of TEP Program Manager Julie Kirschbaum's "to do list." What's different?

From a political perspective, the supervisors no longer have any authority over stop location. From a policy perspective, by proposing systemwide consolidation (at least on the 15 busiest routes), the MTA is not vulnerable to charges it is pitting one neighborhood against another. And most importantly, the benefits of stop consolidation are beginning to appear greater than the political cost of taking away some bus stops.

Kirschbaum has consistently claimed that stop consolidation was not "the most important" efficiency measure the system could make, but she has recently conceded that of all the possible reforms, it's in the "top eight to ten."



Muni Bus-Stop Spacing Analysis Shows 70 Percent of Stops Too Close

bus_stop_pole_small.jpgFlickr photo: Octoferret
The MTA this afternoon released analysis of bus stop spacing showing what anyone who has been on Muni knows: there are way too many stops too close together (PDF). Overall nearly 70 percent of the 4,000 bus and rail stops in the city don't adhere to the MTA's own distance policy, and its clear to the operator that consolidation of stops would speed service and cut costs dramatically.  Furthermore, staff suggests the board might want to consider an increase to the distance between spaces as a matter of policy. "I'm glad they've done the research. It's an option we've wanted the MTA to explore," said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich. "There's a tradeoff, every stop has a constituency.  The other thing that unfortunately has happened is that keeping every stop has been mythologized as a social justice movement.  We've heard that seniors don't care about speed, poor people don't care about speed, they care about stop spacing. Some analysis that I've seen from the TEP shows the opposite to be the case, some seniors care very much about travel times." Radulovich added: "There needs to be rigor to it so that it's not political and not arbitrary." MTA staff noted that nationwide research indicates most people are willing to walk a quarter-mile (1320 ft) to access local transit, though they note that spacing distance should be reduced on steep grades. Further consideration would be given to important transfer points and destinations such as schools, hospitals, and other community facilities. Staff also suggested that approximately 20 percent of delay on the 15 most-used routes is dwell time, due in large part to the density of stops, though it should be noted that the MTA could introduce faster payment options, bus bulb-outs, separated lanes, etc to reduce dwell times. In their presentation, MTA staff highlighted the 9-San Bruno, a route that has 126 total stops, 70 of which are too close. If 9 inbound and 11 outbound stops were eliminated, MTA estimates it would achieve a 7 minute (5 percent) running times savings and an annual cost savings of $200,000 in operator costs alone. Read more...

Is It Time for Muni to Consolidate Bus Stops?

Picture_8.jpg1 California line bus stop map. Does it need so many stops? Click for the full PDF.

As the MTA Board considers solutions to reduce its enormous $129 million deficit, bus stop consolidation should be at the top of its agenda.  Bus stop removal is one of the easiest engineering solutions to speed up service, but the political fallout could be significant without a groundswell of organizing and support from those who would benefit from service improvements. 

The MTA's current bus stop spacing policy is the following:

1. Passenger stop spacing should be approximately 800-1,000 feet on motorcoach and trolleycoach routes except where there are steep grades, and 1,000-1,200 feet between stops on LRV surface lines.

2. On streets with grades of over 10 percent, stops should be spaced 500-600 feet apart. On streets with grades of over 15 percent, such as on Castro between 22nd Street and 24th Street, stops may be spaced as close as 300-400 feet.  There are no special grade guidelines for surface rail (Muni Metro and Historic Streetcar) because the technology limits operation well under 10 percent inclines.

Bus stop spacing is usually balanced by density, topography and the guidelines you see above. Said Aimee Gauthier at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, based in New York:

Ideally, bus stops are determined not by distance (like every block) but by actual passenger volumes. In general, bus stops should be spaced so that they are a reasonable walk between stops (that differs according to who you are talking to and the context [uses, activities around there], but usually it is a within a 10 – 15 minute walk). 

Many stops in San Francisco, however, do not fit the above criteria, including instances of single blocks with multiple stops.  If Muni eliminated stops now, or at least began an experiment, trying out one line, it could save them precious running time costs and improve service and reliability.

Muni actually revises bus stop spacing [PDF] more frequently than one might think, though in a recent interview, MTA Executive Director Nat Ford told Streetsblog San Francisco they aren't planning to release system wide bus stop consolidation recommendations until after the budget process is over.